Elizabeth Balneaves comes out of the BBC archive

Notes from my SGSAH Artist’s Residency at the Shetland Archive

Screen Shot 2018-04-12 at 13.54.44I itemised these when I was at the Shetland Archive. They are cans of cuts and trims from Elizabeth Balneaves films. They contain bits of 16 and 35mm films that no one has seen for years. We don’t know if some of these film still exist. They are the bits Balneaves rejected (I stop breathing at the idea of people coming across my cuts and trims) but they may be all we have of these films.

They are not held by the Shetland Archive but are in the possession of Balneaves’s son who is deciding what to do with them. Hopefully they will soon be preserved and digitised so we can see what they are.

As I research Jenny Gilbertson, Elizabeth Balneaves pops up time and time again. Born in Aberdeen in 1911 and a graduate of Gray’s School of Art, Balneaves was a most adventurous and independently-minded woman. She travelled across Pakistan in the mid 1950s where she wrote and illustrated The Waterless Moon (1955) and then later Peacocks and Pipelines (1958) about her journey from Baluchistan to Bihar. Married to a man of Shetland descent, Dr James Johnston, they moved to Bigton in Shetland  in the 1960. Her travelling continued but she took up filmmaking. In Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) she made The Kariba Dam (1960) and the uncompromising The Aardvark or Antbear (1961) (preserved and digitised by NLSMIA and viewable here). Later, in East Pakistan and Bangladesh, she filmed Where Water is Life (1963) and Logging in the Sundarbans (1963). These are all films about man and the environment or a wild animal coming to terms with man’s idea of it.

Jenny Gilbertson and Balneaves were great friends. Balneaves helped Gilbertson get back into filmmaking and shared her contact Peggy Broadhead at the BBC. It was Balneaves idea for her and Gilbertson to film in Coral Harbour but she became ill and Gilbertson went alone in 1970. Here first film was People of Many Lands: Eskimo Settlement. Joanne Jamieson of the Shetland Moving Archive has recently unearthed this and a number of other films at the Museum of History in Ottawa and it is currently being restored and digitised. In Gilbertson’s writing and interviews she refers to a BBC People of Many Lands film about Papa Stour (an island off the West of Shetland) that she made with Balneaves in 1967. NLSMIA had a People of Many Lands: Shetland on their catalogue under Balneaves, but no one had seen it and NLSMIA did not hold a copy of it

But the BBC Scotland Archive in Glasgow did. I rather badgered the archivist Gregor Marks in the hope that he could extract it from their stores so we could see it, the film where Balneaves brought Gilbertson back into filmmaking. He finally was able to do this and sent me a research copy.

Screen Shot 2018-04-12 at 15.36.48As soon as I got it I watched it and realised it was Elizabeth Balneaves work alone. Having grown up in Bigton, I was aware Balneaves had filmed the Leasks of Hayhoull around their croft in the 1960s. This was it. Kathleen and Laurie Leask casting peats, working with sheep and hay and Kathleen knitting.

Gregor allowed me to show it to people in Bigton to help me find out who was in it (above is a photo of Kathleen’s daughter and great grandson watching her knitting). However, after a few showings on people’s TVs and some wonderfully circular conversations, it became apparent we needed to let more people see it and that if we were going to truly work out who we were seeing in Fair Isle, in black and white, 50 years ago, we needed a big screen and the knowledge of the Bigton community as a whole.

Gregor kindly agreed to us having a screening of it at the Bigton Hall. We did this the night of a Jenny Gilbertson film supper screening Mary Leask and the Bigton folk organised to help me raise funds for my Arctic fieldwork. Jenny and Betty pulled in a full house and we played the Balneaves film twice. I’ve have lots of good nights in the Bigton Hall but this was special. You could see and hear and feel how film can return the audience to a time, a place – and to people, loved ones.


We have now largely established who is in each of the scenes (though there has been some disagreement). Sometimes people are only seen for a second. Sometimes they don’t look themselves. And sometimes it’s maybe not actually them. There are one or two people from Bigton who haven’t seen it yet who were around in 1967 and are likely to be able to confirm or dispel. We need to make sure they see it soon.

People from Bigton who have vivid memories of Betty of Brinna as Balneaves was called. Lang Jim, now sadly departed, remembered her holding film nights at Brinna (the Manse in BIgton where she and Jim lived) and “a big godless bowl o’ punch” that Balneaves ladled out generously before the screening. Peerie Mary, Lang Jim’s wife, was working earlies at the Spiggie Hotel at the time and can only really remember struggling to stay awake as she’d to be up again at 6.

The received pronunciation of Max Robertson raised titters (Balneaves would never have been allowed to do her own voice over in 1967: would she be allowed to do so now?). But Balneaves beautiful composition, pace and poise are evident in Shetland, just as her uncompromising eye is in The Aardvark or Antbear, something many people remarked upon when we screened this as part of the Real Illuminators: Scotland pioneers of documentary filmmaking programme we have shown across Scotland.

So this wasn’t the Balneaves/Gilbertson collaboration. But it is one more film of Balneaves we know is saved. There are others that await restoration, maybe it won’t be long before we can see these.

So thank you, Gregor Marks, who has now moved on to another kind of media management role in BBC Scotland. I have come across a lot of flat nos when dealing with archives. But because you said yes, we were able to reconnect Balneaves film with the community where it was made. We have been able to gather rich layers of information about the making of the film and who was in it before this knowledge is gone for ever. And as John Sinclair from Rerwick said after watching his father, mother, brother and aunties, all now passed away, “it’s fine to see your folks again, moving aroont.”

NB other books by Balneaves are Elephant Valley (1962); The Mountains of the Murgha Zerin (1972); Murder in the Zoo (1974); The Windswept Isles: Shetland and its People (1977).

Update: the Bigton Hall film supper raised £1,205. Thank you to Mary Leask, for organising it; the Bigton Hall Committee for all their help on the night; Stuart Hubbard of Shetland Film Club for his beautiful projection; the Sinclair and the Gilbertson families for running the raffle; NLSMIA, Shetland Moving Image Archive and the BBC for the films; and, of course the people of Bigton – and folk from all over Shetland including Angus Johnstone from the Archive who walked over the hill to get there – for a great night. You are helping me get where I need to go.

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